Marin JCC visitors find Poland welcoming to Jews

David Rudnick acknowledges he wasn’t open-minded when he arrived in Poland. “I think I came with the standard preconceived notion that it was all about the death camps and ghosts,” said the San Rafael resident, who recently visited Warsaw and Krakow on an Osher Marin JCC trip.

He also said he was “a little suspicious” when told that many non-Jewish Poles are interested in Jewish culture.

But after spending a week in the country — meeting with scholars, museum directors, the chief rabbi and ordinary citizens, even touring the infamous death and labor camps outside Krakow — Rudnick said he learned his preconceptions were wrong.

 

Holocaust scholar Tomasz Cebulski leads Marin JCC visitors on Auschwitz tour. photo/liz harris

In an interview following a celebratory Shabbat dinner at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Rudnick and his wife, Julie Fingersh, expressed profound appreciation for what they’d seen and learned on their first visit to Poland.

 

The couple, along with 22 fellow Bay Area Jews on the Taube Jewish Heritage Tour, saw that Jewish culture is on the rise and Jewish institutions are beginning to flourish in today’s Poland.

“What’s really incredible,” said Fingersh, “is the reaction of  the non-Jews to the Jewish community. They’re welcoming, they’re interested … To have a sense of inclusion among the non-Jews who are here, it’s radical.”

The group, led by Joanne Greene, director of Jewish engagement at the JCC’s Center for Jewish Peoplehood, touched down in Warsaw on June 26 and spent much of the next day visiting Jewish places of interest, including the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

The museum, which opened in 2013 (as did Warsaw’s JCC), deeply impressed Ted and Sharon Block of Lucas Valley. They first visited Warsaw in 1988, when the city was still under Communist rule. “It was gray and ugly, and people were gray and ugly and sad,” Ted Block said. The couple revisited Poland seven years ago, but saw even more of a transformation this time. Marveling at the skyscrapers, the lively business climate and, most importantly, the Jewish institutions he saw on this trip (“Who expected to see a JCC?”), Block said, “Isn’t it great to be a Jew, isn’t it great to be a Jew in Poland.”

Linda Drucker of Lafayette said it was “important to make these connections between American Jews and these institutions.” Drucker also had a strong personal interest in visiting Poland — a great-uncle, his wife and two sons perished in the Holocaust. “I wanted to see where he lived [in Krakow], do some research and try and find out what happened during the war,” said the member of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

Barbara Merino of Mill Valley, one of four former presidents of San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom on the trip, also explored her roots. “I have Polish grandparents,” she said. “It seemed appropriate to figure out where I come from.”

Plus, she said, “I was hooked on the idea of the Jewish Culture Festival,” which took place in Krakow the week of their visit.

Besides attending the huge community Shabbat banquet hosted by the JCC Krakow, the Bay Area contingent attended nightly festival concerts in the restored Tempel Synagogue, and took in other events of interest.

Fingersh and Rudnick raved about a “silent disco” at the JCC, where partyers wore headphones and danced in silence.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the group felt a profound sense of sadness, loss and sometimes anger on a visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, led by Tomasz Cebulski, a historian and Holocaust scholar.

Ken King of San Rafael, noting that genocides have taken place in Armenia, Rwanda and elsewhere in the world both before and after the Holocaust, said, “I’m Jewish and I’m complacent and that’s what hurts the most. The story is not new, that’s what’s so painful.”

The group decompressed during a reflective session in the Auschwitz Jewish Center sanctuary. One woman cried for relatives who died in the Holocaust.

“I think I’m worried about mankind,” said Pam Adinoff of Petaluma.

Drucker described seeing a large group of Israeli soldiers in uniform at the camp — one with an Israeli flag over his shoulders — laying a wreath and sounding the shofar. “I think we were fortunate to witness the ceremony,” she said. “It was so moving to me.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.